Writers Chat 13: Nuala O’Connor on “Becoming Belle” (Piatkus: UK, 2018)

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

Welcome, Nuala. When we last had a chat in February of this year, you told me that your Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get? Having now read Becoming Belle, I also felt myself falling for her, hoping that the men around her would become as strong and feisty as Belle herself.

And hearing you read from Becoming Belle in August at the wonderful Victorian Afternoon Tea (at No. 1 Pery Square in Limerick) and at your launch at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin on 5th September (launched beautifully by Mia Gallagher) – well these readings really brought the era to life.

Becoming Belle UK cover

SG: Tell me firstly about the structure of the novel. We know the end point – Belle is the Countess of Clancarty in 1891 – and the novel brings us into Belle’s life in the four years prior to this point through dated sections and short chapters with wonderful titles such as “A Promise”, “A Performance”, “A Ceremony”, “An Outpouring” and so on. Did you have fun playing with the structure or did the story come to you formed as such?

NOC: Well, the novel I submitted as complete is very different to the novel that’s published today. It’s 40k words longer for one thing. I had started Belle’s story much later – at the point where she is already a successful actress and is changing her name from Isabel to Belle – but my editors urged me to go back to her childhood and tell the story chronologically rather than in flashbacks. There were three re-writes which was rather challenging.

I love using chapter titles, it’s my homage to E.M. Forster who did it so prettily and wittily.

SG: Well, the challenge was worth it – I really loved getting to know Belle as a young woman, away from her destiny yet yearning for it!

One of the relationships which I really enjoyed was that between Belle and Flo. They work and perform together (as the Bilton Sisters) but also have an incredibly deep understanding of each other. “They were as familiar as a cradle song with each other’s foibles and frailties.”

You show their support of each other through their singing warm-ups, and their dress, with wonderful historical detail. I was really taken with the milliner Madame Gilbert who, we are told, “had a generous ear and a snug, discreet mouth”. What a great description, and of course, most important for sisters who are famous. Did historical records help in this respect or is the heart-warming relationship in Becoming Belle that of your imagination?

NOC: There really are very few historical records about Belle and Flo. There’s the court case coverage and a few theatre reviews. All of that bellowing of life into long dead lungs is where the imagination comes into play. I have sisters myself so it’s not hard to imagine the sisterly honesty and shorthand in speech, I know it first-hand. My research involved a lot of poring over photographs and reading of social history to try to put together a picture of what life was like for the feisty Victorian woman, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ woman of that age. Belle and Flo were bohemians and their lives and personalities had to reflect that.

SG: It sounds like very enjoyable research, Nuala.

Much of Becoming Belle is concerned with the prickly thorns and muddy waters of motherhood that come through as the story progresses and also the mother/daughter relationship that Belle and Flo have with their mother which we see in the first part of the novel. This is a theme that you enjoy exploring in much of your work. She really was a strong and inspirational woman, so sure of what she wanted, a feminist centuries ahead of her time, if you will, something in her which her mother sees early on. As you did your research and wrote the novel did you discover anything about Belle that surprised you?

NOC: I suppose, in a sense, her personality is my invention. In press photographs of Belle, she often looks deeply melancholic but the events of her life show that she must have had deep courage and daring to act as she did (baby out of wedlock, elopement with a viscount etc.) So I wanted to paint a picture of a woman who, initially, was ambivalent about motherhood, who wanted to get on and who pushed herself forwards by every means she knew. It takes ages for me to understand my characters and round them out so that they are nicely flawed but still somewhat likeable or, at least, compelling. I suppose I didn’t fully know Belle until I’d written the whole story because, by the end, she realises what she has wanted all along.

SG: Following on from this, the Bilton Sisters manage to live life how they wish to in terms of earning a living, being true to themselves, and having fun all within the confines of the expectations of family, society and gender. This, despite the fact, as Belle says to Flo early on – “life is different for ladies; we don’t possess the freedoms afforded to men”.

However, the Clancarty family are more concerned about material wealth and appearances and threaten to destroy all that Belle has worked for. Without spoiling the plot, how unusual were the freedom of the Bilton Sisters in Victorian London? How different were they to their peers?

NOC: They were different to their working and upper class sisters but not to the others who worked in the milieu they were operating in. Theatre people had a different lifestyle to everyone – they worked and played by night. Because of that they mixed with the rich, who could afford to socialise often, and that’s how attachments were formed. Belle was one of the early commoner-to-countess women from the theatre world.

SG: Another strand that runs through Becoming Belle is that of friendship. I was particularly taken with the character of Wertheimer and his deep affection and friendship with Belle. He really is her saviour in many ways, and she his (in your novel), and yet she sticks fast to William, even when, at times, it seems he is not the one. From the notes at the back, Isidor Wertheimer ended up living a rather tragic life after Belle left London. How drawn were you to his character?

NOC: Friendship really interests me; I have loads of acquaintances but, because I’m an introvert, very few deep friendships. I crave more of those.

I adore Wertheimer, he’s the solid, sweet best friend we all dream of: classy, fun, a great listener and very helpful. Love is fickle: Belle appears not to have loved Wertheimer the way he loved her and, though William is a bit of an un-catch, in many ways, she seems to have genuinely loved him.

SG: Yes, at many points throughout the novel, I was wishing she’d change, and go to Wertheimer!

Names and identity are crucial to the characters in Becoming Belle, as the title suggests. From the first page we see Isabel Bilton playing around with versions of her name and, as she meets the various people of London, they are all defined by their name – class, religion, wealth – and this extends, somewhat sadly, to her own child who changes from Isidor to Dory, again, to suit his circumstances. Our names are so important and even more so if we are in the public eye, as Belle, Flo, and the Clancarty clan were.  

NOC: I’m obsessed with names, it’s one of the joyous parts of writing for me. Obviously 99% of my characters for this novel already had their names, but I was thrilled when I discovered, through research, the real names of characters like Jacob Baltimore and Godley Robinson. Such brilliant, evocative names. The fact that Belle named her first child after Wertheimer is significant and later, she gave her daughter his mother’s name, Franziska, as her second name. Unearthing details like that always gives me an excavational thrill.

SG: When I reached the last page of Becoming Belle, I really wanted to read on, to stay with Belle in Galway, see how she handled that new life. Is there any chance of a sequel?

NOC: Oh janey, I doubt it. I’m waaaaay into the writing of novel #5 now and I’ve so many other projects I want to tackle, including a contemporary novel that’s been nagging at me for years. But, never say never, maybe Belle will call me back some day.

Lastly, Nuala, some fun questions:

  • Canaries or Budgies (there’s a thread from the novel in there too!)? We had dozens of budgies as kids but as a canary owner now, I have to say canaries.
  • Sand or grass? Oh, that’s hard. I’ll say grass as I grew up in the Liffey Valley, surrounded by it.
  • Coffee or tea? Tea. I can only drink milky, sugary coffee so I just don’t bother.
  • What was the last history book you read? I’m currently reading Jan Morris’s sublime Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, which is social history/travelogue. She is amazingly clever, her sentences are delicious.
  • What are you reading now? As usual I have about ten books on the go including The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is a fabulous Georgian-era novel: great language, very funny. Also Meg Pokrass’s latest flash fiction collection, Alligators at Night (odd, quirky, funny); I’ll be reviewing Lorrie Moore’s fantastic book of essays, reviews and articles, See What Can Be Done. What a generous, flexible-minded writer she is. I just love her. I’m also reading scads of biographies and histories for my novel-in-progress, an Edwardian era, Europe-set story. Loving it.

A fantastic collection of books on the go! Lots of recommendations there, thanks. Tell us about readings and events relating to Becoming Belle happening in the next few months.

  • Galway launch of Becoming Belle, Ballinasloe Library, 11th September, 6pm. Launch by Mary O’Rourke.
  • Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna 15th September, 3pm. Portumna Library.
  • Clifden Arts Week – 18th September with Alan McMonagle. 4.30pm, Station House
  • Wexford launch of Becoming Belle, Gorey Visitor Centre, 21st September, 6pm. Launch by Caroline Busher.
  • Red Line Festival, 9th October – Victorian Mavericks with Bernie McGill & Caroline Busher, 7.30pm, Pearse Museum, Dublin

  • DLR Voices, 23rd October – The Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire – reading and interview with Sarah Maria Griffin. Time tbc.

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

And don’t forget to follow this blog for more featured Writers Chats!

Nuala O'Connor photo by Úna O'ConnorPhoto of Nuala by Úna O’Connor. 

Keep up to date with Nuala on her website.

Advertisements

Writers with Artists 1: Annemiek Hamelink from Two Trees, The Netherlands

Today I publish my first post in my Writers with Artists series. I return to a piece about one of my collaboration with Dutch artist Annemiek Hamelink. The post was originally published in October 2013, this time around I have included the chapter from Happiness Comes from Nowhere. 

As part of my writing practice I often look to other art forms and talk to other artists about their practice. Annemiek Hamelink’s story bowls have often provided inspiration and she has gleaned ideas from my fiction. We have tried to blog about our back-and-forth collaborations on our real time blog “Story Crafters”. But that’s the trouble with real time and life  – they don’t move as smoothly as the pretty pictures of published collaborations!

Annemiek visited me at the end of August 2013 and arrived with a story bowl she had created based on an early version of the chapter “Possessions” from my novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere (see below – it’s a short chapter).

Annemiek had blogged about this collaboration, and talked about the difficult subject the chapter tackles. So I’d previously seen pictures of the bowl she had created but seeing it in real life – the size and the fragility of it – literally left me speechless. Here you can see an aerial view of the bowl – the porcelain delicate but strong, the curtain concealing, the dove escaping….

DSCN0653

Below we see a dove escaping the curtain – a bid for freedom.

DSCN0654

And the full effect of the piece in operation …. the red lights of hope stark against the whiteness of the fragile porcelain.

DSCN0659

But I think what struck me most was how people take different meanings from the words we write – and, indeed, things we create – and how the meanings others take are often the most powerful. Perhaps meanings we had not thought of or intended. And how hope is always there, even if it’s a faint glimmer.

And that, for me, is really the gift that readers bring to writing, that the viewer brings to art.

Possessions:  extract from Happiness Comes from Nowhere (Ward Wood: London, 2012)  (c) Shauna Gilligan

Possessions

The Ward Sister waved the crucifix at him like a loaded gun. It swung on an overly-long silver chain, glinting with the little sunlight that radiated through old and worn beige blinds. Her voice was harsh, croaky.

“Look what you’ve done to yourself! Is this how you thank your parents for bringing you into this world? Try to leave it? It’s a sin, you know, a mortal sin.”

Time after time it was the anger that came first. Anger at the messiness and downright un-necessary-ness of it all.

She could tell he wanted to say something, to make a sound, an objection of sorts. He tried to move but the drips attached to his right arm stopped him and instead of words, groans came from his mouth. He began to heave.

“Mother of God, there’s no hope. Just look at him.”

She blessed herself, wiping away her disgust. She wiggled her toes inside their 50-denier flesh coloured tights and picked up the notes from the locker. A self-admittance with his mother at twenty past twelve in the afternoon. She shook her head. It was probably the mother he was trying to get away from. She sighed. Another professional: a librarian from a nice part of town. One Dirk Horn. The Gardaí had come and gone: the mother in tears, the son unconscious. She’d signed to say it was a mistake, he hadn’t wanted to, he couldn’t have wanted to kill himself. They nodded, embarrassed at the legal intrusion, saying they’d be back in the morning to talk to him. If he lived, that was.

His possessions sat in a transparent plastic bag to be taken to the psychiatric ward when he was stabilised. They were listed in a row. Probably penned by one of the aides, judging by the neat handwriting:

one pair of blue jeans

one navy heavy cotton hooded jumper

one white tee-shirt

one pair of grey underpants

one pair of white socks

one right and one left of black runners

one wrist-watch with a worn tan leather strap

no valuables on person

At moments like this she found the movements of Sunday morning A&E depressing. But still, she stayed. Still, there was hope to be found in between the drunken people screaming abuse at staff, shouts for doctors and the sound of the trolleys racing bringing bodies to beds, wards, slots in the morgue. She stared at a fifty-something year old woman gyrating against a soft drinks machine yeah baby she screamed, laughing loudly oblivious to the dried blood on her face, escaped from a blow to the head. Curtains opened and closed, cries of fears and anger rose above the clang of equipment. But still, there were rosters to be organised, wards to be filled, beds to be emptied.  And soon Dirk would open his eyes to the realisation that it was still 1992, still the same weekend that he’d tried to leave behind. Continue reading “Writers with Artists 1: Annemiek Hamelink from Two Trees, The Netherlands”

Writers Chat 10: Justine Delaney Wilson on “Listen for the Weather” (Hachette: Ireland and Australia, 2018)

front cover

Justine, You are very welcome to WRITERS CHAT. Congratulations on your second novel Listen for the Weather which was launched in May at the wonderful Gutter bookshop in Dublin.

gutter sign

SG: Reading Listen for the Weather I found the voice of the narrator Beth combined with the short scenes really moved the story along and I just kept turning those pages! It was very much pitch and pace perfect. Can you tell us a little about how you picked the voice and the structure through which to tell the story of Beth and Steve’s marriage?

 JDW: Thanks Shauna. That’s really lovely to hear. My writing style tends to be sparse and precise, and my scenes and paragraphs always on the short and punchy side. Sometimes, I’ll make a conscious effort to let a scene breathe a bit more, to really give it some room or extra time, but it will jar with me immediately when I read it back, and I’ll end up putting a red line through everything that I added in the misguided interests of  fleshing things out.

I like to read fiction that doesn’t give me a mountain of background and isn’t heavy on set-up detail; I want to get straight into the heart of things. I appreciate writers who plate-spin throughout the text, allowing me to pick up the observations as I go. I rather fill my cup with the characters’ joy or pain, and with the truth of things. Not with a lot of front-loading about smells or the colour of the curtains.

I enjoy reading short stories for this reason – the writer’s time and space is precious, so everything superfluous has been cut away, and I find the writing is powerful as a result. I don’t know if I’m actually more of a natural editor than a writer really, in that I always want every single word to justify itself. My background is in research and writing for television, and journalism, so perhaps it comes from a learned need to keep things lean and concise for broadcast or for the allotted space.

In terms of writing in Beth’s voice, at this stage I know her character so well that I can second-guess her thoughts and actions in most situations. I understand what motivates her so I find writing in her voice feels natural.

SG: That’s the wonderful advantage of being with a character for so long, isn’t it. You really know their nuances, like a dear friend. Listen for the Weather is set mainly in New Zealand but there are scenes in Ireland. How important is place to love? Tell me about the split setting, one which you have experienced in your own life.

JDW: This book opens in New Zealand, a couple of years after the Rogers family moved there. My previous novel The Difference, which came out this month two years ago, was almost entirely set in Ireland, with the family’s move to New Zealand coming toward the end. Listen for the Weather is a mirror-image of it, in a way. Beth and Steve have moved to the other side of the world to outrun damage to their relationship and to escape the containment of their old lives. But of course, no amount of running, no matter where, will save any of us from ourselves.

Place is important, in that it informs and shapes our identity. And yet, it also isn’t; when faced with a threat to our family and the loss of everyone we love, we see that it is people who are our home.

I left Ireland early in the Autumn of 2016 to go to New Zealand, and I came back in the Spring of last year. I wrote most of this book while I was away, and then I returned home to a familiar place, and to similar weather as when I’d left – But everything just felt off.  It reminded me of the ‘Crowded House’ line; Walking ‘round the room singing stormy weather. I remember hearing Neil Finn interviewed about that song, Weather with You. He talked about how we create our own weather, how we are always making our own situations. I definitely think my feelings of dislocation and of having to make my own environment in New Zealand – a new life, new securities for my children on the other side of the world – informed my writing of this story and my depiction of the characters.

SG: Having lived away from Ireland for many years myself, I can totally understand that strangeness of being in your ‘home’ country and feeling totally out of kilter. I love what you say that it is people who are our home.

Now tell me about the role of the video calls Beth makes to her mother back in Ireland. What a great device to bring us out of Beth’s head, reminding the reader that another world, another past and indeed another present exist. It’s also a reminder that no matter how difficult the circumstances or experience you are going through, the normality of life is always continuing elsewhere. And yet, the normality often hides other depths, as we learn later in the book.

JDW: Through video calls we catch moments of what we’ve left behind, or what has left us. But, like photographs, these calls only show what’s in frame at the time. Sometimes what’s in frame can relieve and sate us, but sometimes it can also mislead.

Beth’s mother, Johanna, has been tethered to her own desperation for much of her adult life and so has only ever been available to Beth in a very limited way. That said, her familiar mannerisms and expressions during these calls do provide her daughter with some comfort when she desperately needs it. Small hints of Johanna’s hard-won insight into the reality of love, which comes much later in the book, are suggested earlier in some of her seemingly throw-away comments over Skype.

launch shelving

SG: I have to admit my opinion on Johanna changed as the story unfolded, for the very reasons you cite above. Having said that, my favourite character in Listen for the Weather was that of Mae, and how, many times, she is the only one of the family who is grounded in who she is and how she is – she is the solid comforter. For example in the scene when they are driving to the zoo, it’s Mae who asks for Beth’s hand right when Beth needs to be comforted. And in Ireland, it’s Mae who is the touchstone for Beth and her granddad. Really, she is herself, and not trying to fit into a role that society or family has created for her.

 JDW: I’m drawn to write about emotional turbulence – the power-plays in families; the betrayals within relationships; the sense of being at odds with your place in your own domestic world – these ordinary, but difficult, human things. Against this backdrop of adults feeling their way along their own jagged paths stands the character of 7 year-old Mae.

Mae wields a clear and positive power in this book. She manages to love more, but care less. She’s full of empathy – she is the emotional barometer in the house – and yet is nobody’s fool. I think she brings her entire family to life in a way that otherwise might never have happened for them. Mae’s disability allowed me to explore new jealousies in this novel – the uncomfortable envy a mother feels toward a ‘perfect’ child, a little girl who doesn’t have special needs.

Through the innate honesty of her daughter, Beth comes to see and cut through the artifice around her. And it’s from following Mae’s lead that she manages to get her head around what it is she needs to do.

SG: Throughout Beth’s journey, she gives us some beautifully poetic insights into her experience of what love is, or can be – a few of them:

“the heart has a blind spot….isn’t that the human condition? To desire what is not certain.”

 “love chooses not to see, chooses to ignore what doesn’t suit it.”

“The affair is a “tear in the fabric of life.”

“Most of love’s power is how badly it hurts.”

“Love with our eyes open. With the dark colours, as well as the bright.”

Was this a theme that you were always going to write about or did it emerge in the writing of the novel?

JDW:  From the get go, I wanted to look at love in this book. I think everything comes down to love, really. Having it, being denied it, growing up without it, learning to hold onto it, messing it up, confusing it with something else, confusing something else for it, cherishing it.

I’m intrigued by the accepted idea that love is kind, because it isn’t always. The “You are perfect as you are. You complete me” sort of thing doesn’t interest me at all. There’s a laziness in that idea of completion, of having reached some idyll. It’s not the sort of love I want to write about, or even read about. Love is active; it bowls you over, for better and worse. And it keeps pushing you back on yourself, on your own resources, into a space where you think and grow. Beth comes to realise that life is possible for her without Steve, which is the place I needed her to arrive at. Whatever way she goes after that is then a real, eyes-open decision, and not just one based on blind panic or lack of courage.

SG: Yes, I enjoyed being on that journey with Beth, as hard as it was in places, a realisation and a choice based on strength. As you say, a real decision.

Thanks for popping over to participate in my Writers Chat Series and for your generous answers, Justine. To finish off, I’ve five fun questions for you:

Mountains or Sea? The sea, most definitely. The sounds, the constant movement, the tidal changes, the sense of possibility. I had the privilege of living at the ocean in New Zealand and I must say that having half an hour in the evening to walk or sit at the water’s edge is something I’d highly recommend. Mountains are all very well but they don’t hold anything like the same fascination for me. After five minutes, I could probably give or take a mountain, to be honest. I like to be amongst things, amongst possibilities and activity, and I associate mountains with distance and seclusion. A city with a coastline would be my ideal. 

Coffee or tea? Tea. I’m a very committed tea drinker. The kettle in my house is always either on or still warm from the previous cup. I don’t like coffee, which is probably just as well because I’m not the best at things in moderation, and tea seems like the lesser of two charming evils.

Kindle or Paperback? Oh, paperback! I don’t own a kindle and I hope nobody ever buys me one. I like to feel the pages, to turn them, to flick back if I need to, and occasionally I’ll write on them. I love the physicality of books – the cover, the smell. And as décor, there’s surely nothing better than shelving full of well-read books, their spines lined up together. The fact that books don’t need charging is also glorious.

What are you writing now? In the latter stages of every manuscript, I swear that I’ll NEVER do this to myself again. But then the finished book comes out, and I see it in someone’s hands being read, and I quickly forget the pain of its birth. The faucet for the next novel is dripping away in the background here already. It’s called An Open Door and is set in present-day Dublin and 1990s New York.

What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? My TBR pile was so high recently that I had to split it into a Pile A and a lesser Pile B. I was starting to feel some anxiety at the height of the tower glaring down at me. So on the top of pile A is The Long-Winded Lady, which I’ve already started. It’s a collection of Maeve Brennan’s columns for The New Yorker between 1954 and 1981, recently published by ‘The Stinging Fly’. Below Maeve, and currently in the following order to be read, are; White Houses by Amy Bloom, Problems by Jade Sharma, Norah Hoult’s Cocktail Bar and the just-added Calypso by David Sedaris. I’m dying to read Kudos by Rachel Cusk. She is among my favourite authors and this is the final book in her recent trilogy. I’m waiting for my copy to arrive, and it will rudely jump to the top of Pile A when it does.

JDW Nov pic 2

Connect with Justine on Twitter @justinedelw and her publishers @hachette

Look out for Justine in the media – articles and interviews coming up in The Irish Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Independent and The Gloss.

Writers Chat 7: Aoibheann McCann on “Marina” (WordsOnTheStreet: Galway, 2018)

Aoibheann, Welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series and thanks for participating so fully.

Congratulations on your debut novel Marina which Mike McCormack has described (and I’d thoroughly agree!) as a “singular enchantment” and which also has a really stunning cover:

wp4a2c4ee8_05_06
Cover of Marina Purchase Direct from Publishers http://www.wordsonthestreet.com/

SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about Marina’s love of the sea.

The story seems to be about a circular journey from childhood to adulthood, and from Ireland to England, yet at another level, Marina seems to be a contemplation on how disconnected we all are from the land – dry and wet ground – that we live on and in.

You’re from Donegal and now living in Galway. Did you use your own knowledge of the sea and its landscape, and also that sense of being away from home (as Marina is in London) in writing this beautiful sensory novel?

AMC: Marina’s love of the sea is a theme throughout the novel, and it has a very strong pull for her. Throughout the novel, she associates the sea with escape, be it by boat or by swimming. Though when she eventually does escape across the Irish Sea, it does not work out so well for her. I think we are all very disconnected from the earth these days and that causes us a lot of problems.

I grew up beside the sea and was brought out on boats from a very young age. My family were mariners for generations so I have a deep generational connection with the sea. Luckily I still live near the sea in Galway and can see it out of my bedroom window. The further I get from the sea the more trapped I feel, but it also utterly scares me, as a lot of my relatives died at sea.

I lived in London for a number of years, my daughter was actually born there, and I although I loved the freedom of it, I always missed the sea and had a strong urge to return to Ireland. Especially when I was pregnant for some reason. I think I actually saw a mirage on a particularly hot day just before she was born!

The sea helped me to write the book too. I was inspired to write Marina in the aquarium in Salthill in Galway. I was looking at a fish in a seawater tank, it looked miserable, and this is where Marina sprang from.

SG: What an amazing image – you by the sea gazing at fish trapped in a tank, both surrounded by seawater…But then there’s all that history and inner knowledge you have about the sea that seeps through the novel. 

I loved the writing throughout In particular, I loved the poetic writing which grabs you right from the start:

“Belonging like they did when I saw them, floating in the sea, the green fronds of seaweed caressing their pale skin. They are nibbled gently, caressed by tiny fish who, bit by bit, ingest them, return them, welcome them.”

It also extends into the stuff of life – we’re told 

“The piano was truly the instrument of fate” 

and, when Jamie is born, he’s

“red and squashed, as if he’d come out of a shell.”

AMC: Thank you! I started off as a poet, in fact the first piece of writing I got published was a poem. Though I rarely write poetry these days, it is still there in my writing. I think the prologue and the intervals are the most poetic parts of the book, where Marina describes the world as she sees it in her very disjointed way. I was inspired to write these parts in my garden and walking by the sea. I think especially at these points I could see ordinary things from Marina’s perspective, and as she seems to be able to zone so completely into things and is so removed from social concerns, she is able to describe things more precisely or more poetically. I think poetry is about seeing things from a very different perspective.

SG: Yes! And now that you say it, that’s really what I loved about Marina – that sense of the word view being turned somewhat. 

I read Marina in one sitting and gasped when I came to the end – without revealing anything – it was like I was in the sea, coming up for air, or that a wave of a life of emotions had just washed over me. For me, this is a great reading experience, when you’re taken somewhere else entirely and then when the book finishes, you’re back to the grey skies (not unlike those of Marina’s life!) and reality. How important a role do you think atmosphere plays in this story – in keeping the reader embedded in the parallel clarity and murkiness of the waters of Marina’s thoughts, compared to Jamie’s thoughts which are shown as been numbed with medication?

AMC: Again, thank you, that’s great feedback for a writer! The first draft of the story didn’t feature the parallel story of Marina in the present, which I think provides the context of her version of the ultimately tragic events and her justification for what happened. It also adds to the atmosphere, as it is clear that her thoughts are murky from the start. Dr. O’Hara provides the clear voice of reason, but can be very harsh. I often think we put labels on people so we can rationalise their actions and there isn’t always a rational explanation for why people behave as they do. We like to think we can explain people’s behaviour by looking at their childhood but I don’t think we can. Of course, Jamie never really gets a voice, so we only have Marina’s (unreliable) version of the events, so we have to take her word for it. So overall I tried to make the atmosphere like the deep water that Marina inhabits in her mind.

SG: Yes. It saddens me how labels often seek answers yet in doing so can move further from those very answers. 

Marina is also about relationships. We have the one which is constant – Marina and her relationship to sea, including being at sea for most of the story – and we have the one which we, as readers, see evolving into something that isn’t quite what we would have hoped for Marina: her love for Jules, the young man she falls for at university in London. It’s really a question of like attracting like rather than opposites attract – especially if we consider that the less they verbally communicate, the less they each play their instruments. Can you talk a little about that relationship – in which Marina, at one stage, feels

“smaller than an ant”

 AMC: I think Marina and Jules’ relationship is ultimately very unhealthy and obsessional. It is further exacerbated by Sandra’s influence. I think Marina tries to find a replacement for Jamie in Jules, but also she feels haunted by what she feels is a betrayal of Jamie so I think she justifies Jules’ cruelty because of this.

Jules and his mother are very controlling. I think Marina feels smothered by this but the further away from the sea and her music she gets, the more trapped she becomes, and it takes something drastic for her to return to Ireland.

SG: We’ve talked about the role of the land in Marina, but of course there’s the wider question of the environment and how we are destroying it. Can you talk about how Jules and his involvement with environmental groups adds to that theme, indeed, perhaps this being the one of the first things that Marina learns about him is also what attracts her to him.

AMC: The environmental theme was always a big part of the book, though it isn’t really part of the plot. I thought about evolution a lot when I was writing the first draft: if we are so evolved as a species, why are we destroying the environment that sustains us? If you consider this, it actually explains Marina’s destructive behaviour and why she ultimately feels humanity isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There is a strand of psychology called eco-psychology which believes that mental illnesses are caused by environmental damage; if the earth is being destroyed, then we inevitably will be too. As it suffers, so do we. Also, I thought a lot about the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which shows evolution in the form of reincarnation; the more good deeds we do, the more likely we are to ‘evolve’ into a higher life form. Again, I thought, are we really a higher life form if we are destroying ourselves like this?

As for eco-warriors, I hung around with some at college, and they were always so sure of themselves and what they were doing. Jules’ character and especially those of his friends are inspired by them. My life experience is in no way like Marina’s, but I was asked to stop eating a Kit Kat in my own house by an eco-warrior! I think Marina is so lost and scared, she latches on to Jules as he seems so sure of everything, as do his friends. They see something wrong in the world too, and are better able to articulate this than she is.

Yes – these are all questions that I asked myself as I was reading and, more so, when I’d finished the novel, and, found myself understanding Marina’s behaviour.

Lastly, Five fun questions, Aoibheann:

Dogs or Cats? Dogs. I have two!

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks? Paperbacks.
  2. What page are you on of the book you’re reading now? 89 of Echoland by Per Petterson
  3. Describe the story in one word? Childhood
  4. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? The Invisible Ones by Steph Penny

Thank you for such insight, Aoibheann and I wish you much success with Marina. 

IMG_9127.JPGTY

 You can keep up to date with Aoibheann (above) on her website.

LAUNCHING MARINA

Little John Nee will launch Marina in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway on 19th April 2018.

Listen to Aoibheann reading from Marina in Athenry Library on 10th May.

 

Writers Chat 6: Lisa Harding on “Harvesting” (New Island: Dublin, 2017)

Writers Chat with Lisa Harding, shortlisted for Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award…

Lisa, Welcome to “Writers Chat” and congratulations on the much-deserved accolades Harvesting (New Island, 2017) has been receiving, including being awarded The Kate O’Brien Award (2018), short listed in the Newcomer section for Irish Book of the Year in 2017 and now shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award (winners announced on May 30th in Listowel)

HARVESTINGbook pic

SG: Firstly, Lisa, let’s talk about the many stories behind Harvesting and what drove you to take on such a harrowing and emotional journey with your two strong female narrators Sammy and Nico.

LH: The book came about because of my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People run by the children’s Rights Alliance and the Body Shop. At the launch of that campaign in 2012, I was invited in my capacity as an actress to read first-hand accounts of some of the girls who had been trafficked to Ireland. What shocked me was how prevalent the trade is, how young some of the girls are and also that some of the girls that fall into the rings are Irish. Up until that day I had no idea this trade was happening on our shores.

It took me three years before I allowed myself to start to write about the topic. I struggled with legitimacy around telling these stories: who am I to give voice to these girls’ experiences? I am not an expert, nor a survivor, but something had burrowed inside me and I genuinely felt haunted by the testimonies I read that day. I found myself unable and unwilling to forget, and so set out to give voice to these hidden victims of this dark, flourishing world.

Sammy and Nico, although purely fictitious character, are composites of some of the personal accounts I was furnished with.

SG: I think that is why both women come across as such authentic characters. Now tell me about your process – in getting into the psyches of these women, in being able to so aptly explore their inner and outer worlds. Did you find that your experience in play writing and acting helped? I’m thinking of scenes, for example, where Sammy says “I empty out inside and allow myself to go floppy” (p.209) or Nico when she reminds herself before she takes the man’s stray hairs: “If I don’t breathe I’m not really there, not really.” (p.213)

LH: I adopt an improvisational approach to any creative process, which is greatly informed by my training as an actress.  I always start with a voice, and if I feel I can channel that voice, step inside the character’s skin, fully embody it, the writing will flow naturally from there.  Initially I didn’t know Harvesting would be a novel, the form was mutable as I was allowing different voices space inside my head. It could have been a play, or a series of interconnected short stories, but over time two voices start to clamour for more attention and space on the page. The consciousness of Sammy and Nico felt more alive and embodied than any of the other characters. The novel is in essence a series of alternating monologues told from the perspective of an Irish girl and a Moldovan girl.

As Harvesting is written in the first person present tense, everything that happens to these girls is being experienced and written about in the moment. The process of writing in this way is rather like channelling, where you bypass the conscious mind, or the intellect as much as possible and give yourself over to your instinct.

SG: Oh how wonderful that you felt free enough to let the narrative evolve and become the form it needed to become to tell the story. Lisa, let’s consider the role of place in Sammy’s Dublin is both her anchor and the city which fails to save her, while Nico’s Moldova fades as Dublin – what she is exposed to as ‘Dub’ – engulfs her. It seems Sammy and Nico both loose who they are and where they’re from simultaneously.

LH: That’s a really interesting observation, and not one I was consciously aware of at the time of writing. For Nico, the natural world was her home, growing up in a rural Moldovan village where her favourite activities were climbing trees and swimming in the rivers. Suddenly she is wrenched from this environment, the only world she ever knew, and is transported in cars, boats and planes from Moldova to Italy to London to Belfast, then finally Dublin. She is disoriented and dislocated early on. She regularly reverts to her favourite childhood spots in the moment of trauma where she dissociates from herself and her actual environment. I imagined her focus was slightly blurred in a bid to protect herself and so Dublin is experienced as a characterless place that could be anywhere. She only sees the inside of the holding house and the inside of a car and the inside of bedrooms. She yearns for nature yet has no direct contact; all she sees through fogged up windows is grey skies and rain.

Sammy is a suburban Dublin girl, so her environment is less alien, but her experience is. They are both brought to a ghost estate and their life of entrapment is played out against the backdrop of private parties, convention centres, bars, hotels. I felt if I was looking out on their world in their particular emotional state it would be heightened, bizarre, terrifying. Even those environments that were previously familiar take on an outlandish, almost ghoulish quality.

SG: Without revealing anything, Sammy and Nico start off and end in very different places. Between their beginnings and endings in their relationship we encounter moving tenderness, humorous quips while they each try to protect and provide some sort of comfort – and even love – each other.

LH: My two main motivators for writing this book were: (1) How can this happen? And (2) how do the girls survive and assimilate this sustained level of abuse? This second question feeds into your observation about their relationship, which is intense, at times verging on the hysterical. They are teenage girls who form a fierce bond under siege. I fell in love with the two girls as they navigated an unlikely friendship that becomes their everything. In each other they find humanity in a brutal, uncaring world. I was surprised how both girls use humour to deflect, protect and ultimately bond. But then, I realised they are so young and so impressionable and they need that ferocious love and loyalty to survive.

SG: I love how, at times, your writing is stark – factual almost – and then, also beautifully poetic. Nico describes the pain of two sisters as “palpable – it beats in the air like injured birds, trapped” (p236) and in another scene “I squint and blur my vision, but cannot see a rescuing knight no matter how hard I try.” (p281)

Sammy, locked inside on a day that seems particularly long tries

“not to listen to the bird-song, which I can hear over the wind and thrum of the tumble dryer. She’s so loud and insistent for such a tiny thing. I know, I know, I get it, birdie, but shut the fuck up, will ya?” (p242)

Do you think using different styles and language to convey changes in emotional tempo shows us that in the most awful of circumstances there is often – though unfortunately, not always – a glimmer of hope?

LH: That’s a really lovely compliment, thank you! Again, an unconscious lucky accident,  although I imagine my history in theatre fed into that melding of styles. Writers like Tennessee Williams, and in a completely contrasting way Sarah Kane, bring poetry, lyricism and a heightened sensibility to experiences of brutality. The lives Sammy and Nico are living are so far removed from the norms of the everyday that I felt colloquial language couldn’t always express their complex interior lives. They are so outside themselves and unable to process what is happening to them in the moment that I did struggle at times to find words to express this turmoil. Music could perhaps better express this turbulent inner landscape of trauma. I guess in some ways, heightened theatrical or poetic language can offer a kind of transformation, or transmutation, so perhaps unconsciously this was what I was playing with.

Yes, hope. I felt the fact of them being alive and capable of loving each other meant there was always hope.

SG: You participated and read from Harvesting as part of a symposium on modern slavery in Armagh on March 8th. How powerful do you think writing can be in today’s world where brevity is king?

LH: That was an extraordinary event. It was humbling to realise the importance of the role of the arts in raising awareness. The organiser of the symposium had come across Harvesting some time ago and was moved to organise an entire event on modern slavery because of his experience reading the book. So, I guess we cannot underestimate the effect of writing, even in such a time-poor, social-media saturated climate where Netflix is king. I imagine a visual medium might have even more impact, but then we lose the intimacy and interiority that only the novel allows.

SG: I think the key is that the novel form encourages or even demands self-reflection from the reader after it’s been read – in a way that other forms don’t.

Lastly, Lisa, some fun questions:

What are you reading now? Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

I read that over Christmas – in one sitting – and really loved it. Both disturbing and beautiful.

What’s your go-to dinner? Stir-fry with veggies. I’m a terrible cook!

Well stir-fry sounds delicious!

What writing are you working on? A new novel about the generational impact of alcoholism and the limitations of recovery.

Oh, the limitations of recovery. I’m intrigued.

What’s next for you? The above novel, and then…hopefully others. I’m a newbie in love with the form.

Sounds like you’re on a roll, Lisa. Keep on going!

Launch pic

Thanks again for popping over for the sixth “Writers Chat”. I look forward to reading more of your work over time and wish you more of the very best with Harvesting which can be ordered here. 

Writers Chat 5: Patrick Chapman on his debut novel “So Long, Napoleon Solo” (BlazeVOX Books: NY, 2017)

Writer Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, titles, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

I’m delighted to bring you a fifth WRITERS CHAT where Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

Patrick, you’re very welcome. You’re a much-published and critically acclaimed poet and writer but today we’re going to focus on your debut novel So Long, Napoleon Solo (BlazeVOX Books, 2017). Congratulations on the publication and the fabulous cover which has such a nice texture!

PATRICK: Thank you, Shauna. The cover is meant to evoke pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s, though this is a modern story. The style is a hint at the spy stories of the protagonist’s childhood.

SLNS BLUE SUN.jpg

       Buy So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh yes, I can see that in the cover. A nice touch and a push towards the physical copy rather than the digital. Patrick, having published seven collections of poetry and two books of stories, written for TV, film and audio drama, and worked in advertising – how did you come to turn to the long haul of novel writing? Was So Long, Napoleon Solo always destined to be a novel or did it start life as something else?

PATRICK: So Long, Napoleon Solo was always going to be a novel, but I took a poet’s route to writing it. That’s to say, the book was composed without a plan, and along the way it yielded other pieces as I followed paths that didn’t end up belonging to the story at hand – a novella, Anhedonia, published four years ago, and a few short stories, all came off the flywheel as I whittled the novel down to its core. When BlazeVOX said yes last year, I enjoyed a few months of final editing, which gave the book its finish. So it was a long haul, but I loved the process of it.

SHAUNA: That’s the key with novel writing, isn’t it – you’re in for the long haul, however that ‘long’ is. Well, as writers it is often difficult to express that which cannot be expressed and one of these acts is that of suicide and the grief that follows. Having explored this in novel form myself, I understand how complex and delicate a theme it is. Although the death of Tom, an old childhood friend of our hero Jerome (“a sensible coward”) is pivotal to the whole narrative, So Long, Napoleon Solo isn’t really about suicide – I found it to contain a steady meditative thread on what we understand friendship to be, and how it changes over time and over our lives.

PATRICK: Friendship – its various forms, and how it evolves with time and circumstance – is definitely a theme of the novel. Some friendships calcify, some flower. Some were never how you remember them, or what you expected them to be.

Tom kills himself before the book begins, but the relationship he had with Jerome, is frozen in Jerome’s memory as that which they shared as boys. We only have our hero’s word for what it was actually like.

This novel went through the stages of grief, and came out the other side. In the composition, it seemed important to write fearlessly – not treating the subject of suicide with kid gloves but allowing it space to be what it is: imponderable at first and catastrophic yet human and, to my mind, having been around quite a few of them, eventually understandable and forgivable. Also there are one-liners in the book. I wanted this to be a black comedy, which is how it turned out.

SHAUNA: In the humour – some of which had me laughing aloud (“Humanity was turning into a species of mugwumps in suits”) there are some very poetic portrayals of emotion, such as the description of Tom’s mother Betty at his funeral:

Betty now bawled openly, a Magdalene of sorrow and no one’s feet to wash with her hair.

PATRICK: Humour can be how we cover our inability to face sorrow. Jerome deals with his – unacknowledged at first – using cynical humour; his character strengthens and deepens as the book goes on, and as his life crystallises into something new. Jerome’s armour is stripped away and he finds another way of facing his demons, which I won’t spoil, but he first has to get good at confrontation. This backfires amusingly on him. As for his sorrow – once laughter fades, the darkness in the face of which it sounded, wraps around him like a cloak and he has to find a way to wear it that looks good on him.

SHAUNA: Yes there is that depth of sorrow throughout the novel. But So Long, Napoleon Solo is full of journeys – from childhood to adulthood, regret to acceptance, blame to forgiveness. Jerome constantly balances himself on the tightrope between conforming to society’s expectations and being free.

In Dublin “his other pals had long since drifted away into fatherhood, depression or success”. Clea discouraged him from getting to know other women, as she had “put a lot of work into him.” And at home in the countryside he muses how the people

raced to become exactly the sort of people they were expected to be, then they could stop evolving and have done with it.

Tell me about the formation of this complex character that I found myself both loving and despising in equal measure.

PATRICK: Jerome’s character at the beginning of the book, is formed out of an idea of himself that he’s constructed in order to be able to get on with things. His attitude to his past is a way of distancing himself from who he used to be. It’s a protective layer he hasn’t learned to live without. As for his smart mouth, he’s projecting, and compensating for his own sense of isolation. There’s tenderness in his view of his upbringing, but pain too. His hometown is to him the place where his friend killed himself, and where the people who bullied him as a child, now exist in a hell of quiet desperation, at least to his mind. In fact they’re perfectly normal humans. Eventually, Jerome learns that everyone is lost and for some that’s not a problem, as they don’t realise it.

SHAUNA: This next question has two parts. 

Firstly, the novel is primarily set in Dublin and I loved how, through Jerome’s life, we see the streets, bars and cafes grow high, fall, as the Celtic Tiger comes and along with it greed, homelessness, prosperity, all the contradictions of a city that is essentially not quite grown up – like the ever nostalgic Jerome.

On the top floor of a house near Portobello bridge, he had taken his first taste of Red Lebanese, Leonard Cohen and nakedness with a woman, all in the same night. The hash had made him high, the music had made him smile and the woman had made him coffee in the morning.

Do you think So Long, Napoleon Solo is as much about Dublin as it is about its characters?

Secondly, as much as the city, the music guides both the reader and Jerome towards maturity and, as he finally lights a cigarette like a man, he smokes “pulling the future into his head”. I’d have loved a CD to accompany the novel!

PATRICK: The story was written during the boom years, but it’s not a ‘Celtic Tiger’ novel per se. That said, the city in which it’s set is very much the Dublin of that period – a new-money metropolis, a place that thinks it’s cosmopolitan but that will never be New York. It doesn’t wear its worldliness lightly. There’s an incuriousness in some of the background characters, along with a certain herd instinct at large upon the world, a movement towards conformity that Jerome disapproves of. He thinks himself outside all of that but really he doesn’t understand how everyone else seems to know what to do.

As for music, the songs of Jerome’s youth act as a comment on his not being able to reveal his small-town character. They represent his authentic self; he hides these albums from his city friends. When Ro turns up with her ‘anything goes’ attitude, she’s much more relaxed than he is, in music as well as in other areas. She couldn’t care less what he likes or doesn’t like. She has bigger problems. Real life is what’s playing on her Discman (the book is set just pre-iPod).

In lieu of a CD, here’s a Spotify playlist of some of the music and artists featured in So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh fabulous! I shall look forward to listening. Now on the topic of characterisation it struck me that the expression of female sexuality seemed often to be as an antidote to male power, in particular, how Clea and Ro are portrayed in relation to Jerome. Of course the narrative of So Long, Napoloen Solo is written from a close third-person perspective so we’re looking at these – at times very strong – female characters through the eyes of Jerome. In a way, I also couldn’t help thinking that Clea and Ro were extensions of different versions of Jerome – almost like you see couples begin to look like their dogs or each other. Did you envisage this interconnectivity for your characters?

PATRICK: Ro is used to taking what she wants sexually, as is Clea. That’s not to say that what either wants is particularly wild, though there’s a scene where Clea does something to Jerome that might raise certain eyebrows today.

In the sense that all characters represent aspects of their author, there is a relationship between these three, and they do reflect each other but they’re individuals. Ro is not a ‘manic pixie dream-girl’, yet she arrives as part of a world of anarchy that opens for Jerome. She’s tougher and more robust than that label, and she is not at all about the guy. There’s a strength to her, a recklessness, as well as frankness and kindness. Though she’s in a mess, she’s on more solid ground than at first it appears. Clea is witty and sophisticated on the surface but having had adventures in her youth, she now tends towards the conventional. She represents a certain kind of accommodation people often make with intolerable domestic situations, out of fear, a desire to fit in, or a sense that there’s no way out.

One thing these two characters have in common is that, although they see Jerome as a human being, neither takes him seriously as any kind of traditional male ideal. That’s liberating for everyone, as he doesn’t see himself that way, either.

SHAUNA: Yes, that’s what I thought – we see more of Jerome through Clea and Ro. Much of our curiosity in life is about finding the answer to This comes through very strongly in your novel, Patrick. Jerome wants desperately to find out why Clea can possibly go back to Harry when he is abusive towards her; both Jerome and Ro spend much of the novel trying to find out why Tom killed himself; and Jerome, like all of us, is a man constantly searching for meaning. In a way, isn’t the act of writing part of this search, part of the why?

PATRICK: Writing is all about ‘why’, as much as it’s about ‘what happens next’. It can be cathartic for the author to write in search of an answer but the journey needs to resonate with a reader – the writing becomes all about telling a good story. In this book, as in life, not every question has a clear answer, which is intentional. I try not to close the circle. For instance, what does the word ‘England’ mean, towards the end of the novel? A whole new world, perhaps.

SHAUNA: Although we never get to meet Tom, we get to know him through flashbacks and memories of those who knew him in life. Innocent play becomes tainted with adult knowledge and reason and in the light of suicide a simple childhood friendship takes on a heavy weight. Life is full of phases and people often pass through one phase, disappear and reappear in another phase. Friendships come and go. I couldn’t help wondering that if Tom hadn’t killed himself would Jerome even remember him?

PATRICK: Every now and then, Jerome would remember Tom as someone he had known long ago, a signifier of a different time, an imaginary friend which, in a way, is what he becomes in our story. Tom is more powerful as a memory. If he had turned up in person, we wouldn’t have this set of events. It’s a twisted memory too – what Tom leaves behind is poisonous and nuts, and the effect it has is transformative. You have to ask if reasonable people would take up the challenge of it the way Ro and Jerome do, but in this situation they’re not entirely reasonable. It’s an emotionally heightened reality for these characters.

SHAUNA: Yes, I felt that much of the pace of the book was driven by the heightened emotion of the characters. Finally, Patrick, let’s move to the title. As a young boy Tom is given a gun by a slightly dodgy uncle and he and Jerome decide to address each other by their secret names – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – taken from the characters of the 1960s US TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Do you think there are different interpretations of the story depending on the reader’s knowledge of The Man from U.N.C.L.E and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E? (Here I need to confess that though I’ve not seen either programme, my lack of knowledge did not affect my enjoyment of the novel.)

PATRICK: The reader doesn’t need to know these shows (or the recent movie) to enjoy the novel. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is important only in that the two boys played at being those spies, and it’s clear soon enough in the story who Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were. As for the title, So Long, Napoleon Solo was inspired by my admiration for two other books with ‘So Long’ in the name. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell and So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish, by Douglas Adams. As a phrase, it didn’t show up in Google searches until Robert Vaughn died, so it seemed like a good one.

SHAUNA: Thanks so much, Patrick, for being so giving with your responses to my curiosity. I must look up those two books you mention.

I wish you much success with So Long, Napoleon Solo! 

READERS: Check out the track list to the novel and purchase Patrick’s novel here.

You might also be interested in Patrick’s poetry published by Salmon Press and you might like to read an article Patrick wrote for Writing.ie about So Long, Napoleon Solo

 

Chapman

 

Writers Chat 4: Nuala O’Connor on “Miss Emily” (Penguin: USA and Canada, 2015) and PREVIEW chat about “Becoming Belle” (Forthcoming from Penguin)

Latest “Writers Chat” – preview chat about Nuala O’Connor’s “Becoming Belle” and re-post of our Q&A about “Miss Emily”

The fourth post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Nuala O’Connor from August 2015 on her third novel Miss Emily and a new preview chat about Becoming Belle which Sebastian Barry has declared to be “luminous”. Becoming Belle will be published in August 2018. 

BB USA cover

What a beautiful cover, Nuala. So tell me about this stage in the publishing process – after the writing, editing, and proofs… and before the publication date (August 2018).

NUALA: This is the easy part because all the difficult work is done. Now it’s time for gentle pre-publicity (sending out advance copies to key people: journalists and literary types of all hue) before the real PR push starts. I’m taking a week out in May to write articles, essays etc. about the book for promo purposes; I’m hoping by devoting a week to it, that I’ll get a lot done. It’s a time consuming business. I won’t be able to write much on my novel-in-progress during the promotional months for Becoming Belle. That’s maybe the only downside as the act of writing keeps me balanced in myself. And sane…

The story of Belle sounds utterly fascinating. Tell us how you came to write about her and her links to Ballinasloe.
NUALA: Like a lot of things, I tried her out first in a poem (a pretty crappy vilanelle). Then I wrote a flash about her. When I keep returning to a subject, it’s begging for more. I moved to Ballinasloe 13 years ago and researched the history of the town and soon came across this music hall girl who had married the local Viscount amid some scandal. She was a beauty and much loved in Ballinasloe; I was interested in knowing more about this maverick English woman who ended up in rural Ireland as the Countess Clancarty, despite being a dancer and not being from gentry.
When can we get our hands on Becoming Belle
NUALA:  It is published here, there and all over in August 2018. I really can’t wait for people to read about Belle – she is feminist, feisty and fresh. I gave my parents an advance copy of the book and my Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get?
Wow, that is surely the best review any writer could get – that your reader falls in love with your heroine. I can’t wait to read it in August 2018!
Nuala OConnor 4
*****

Q&A (originally published in August 2015) with Nuala about Miss Emily 

*****

I start this blog post with a confession. I have always considered my tastes to reside in the modern. Miss Emily, set in the late nineteenth century however, is written in O’Connor’s beautiful lyrical prose with feminist leanings. The novel not only brings us into the world of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, but also Ada Concannon, a feisty Dubliner who follows in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle in the hope of better prospects in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I raise my hands, humbly, and declare that I was hooked from the first page with the complex characters of Emily and Ada, the lush imagery and bountiful senses, and a story that, from the start, gets you asking questions, and reading on. As a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, Miss Emily gave me a unique glimpse into her sense of self as a writer. Many of Emily’s sections are poetic in themselves, beautiful prose. Consider these musings, for example:

“I write by night now, when nothing thrums but my lamp…The house sleeps; Amherst sleeps. Only I endure. And when my pencil tires of flicking word arrows onto the page, there is the moon to admire, full-faced and lovely, a bright coin…”

Miss Emily, however, could also be enjoyed and relished by readers not familiar with – or even interested in – Dickinson as a writer. Here’s quite an accomplishment: O’Connor manages to hook you into this well-paced story while also providing convincing and fascinating glimpses into the life – imagined – of such a known poet.

MissEmily_On-Beach

 

Thank you, Nuala, for a wonderful read – on a northern Spanish beach (as per above photo!). I’m delighted to be part of Miss Emily Blog Tour!

There is a wonderful sense of place in Miss Emily from the Dublin Liffey and life as a maid downstairs to the workings of the kitchen, the stables, and herb garden in the Dickinson household in Amherst.

“The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scattering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all.”

The sense of place – and the atmosphere throughout the novel – seems to me to be as connected to the characters – Ada and Miss Emily – as it is to their respective countries – Ireland and America. In some way, Ada echoes Emily’s attachment to the indoors, how rushes of homesickness hit her at times. It strikes me that Miss Emily is not just about Emily Dickinson.

NUALA: Ada, the young maid, is the active character in the story, given Emily’s reclusiveness, which is beginning to be her preferred state by 1866, when the novel is set. The novel is about cross-generational friendship, the maid-mistress relationship, emigration and loyalty. It’s also about what it means to be a female maverick in the nineteenth century and what the consequences of that can be. And, yes, it’s about place – setting is important to me in fiction. For my own sake I need to inhabit the places I write about and really feel the setting loom large around me. The research for that – flora, fauna, architecture – is part of the thrill of writing for me.

I was enthralled by the day-to-day detail of living, and working – of course reflected in the beautiful covers of the US and UK editions, and in the novel from the instructional gift Ada receives from Mrs Dickinson (The Frugal Housewife by Mrs Child) and all the advice it gives, to the vision of Emily Dickinson lowering a basket full of delicious gingerbread for the children. Did you have fun researching and playing around with historical details such as these?

 NUALA: The research was a joy. I research as I write, mostly, and unearthing new and interesting details about domestic life in the nineteenth century was always a pleasure. I baked Emily’s recipes, I bought myself an old glass churn and made butter, I (squeamishly) watched YouTube videos on how to skin hares. I studied The Frugal Housewife and made it, as Mrs Dickinson suggested, Ada’s second Bible. I read close on thirty books by or about Emily in the course of the research – about her relationships, her poetry, her life in general. I wanted to get things right, to be loyal to her; I fell deeply for her warmth and wit while writing the book.

That joy really comes through in the novel, Nuala. Now tell me about the baking. I just adored the scenes with Emily and Ada in the kitchen, the dynamics between them and how each of their personalities seem to shine, and their friendship bloom, as they bake.

“I take dried pears from their jar; they were as pink as plums when picked, with crinoline hips and the flesh of candies. Now they curl – silenced yellow tongues – in my hand. I glance at Ada, and she is smiling roundly, forgetting now her Daniel and his saving of her from the lion. She uses her hands to mix together raisins and citron rind; the smell is glorious.”

In fact, I wished there were recipes at the back of the book – perhaps there will be on your website? 

NUALA: I love to cook and bake, and that was what drew me back to Emily later in life, having studied her poetry at school. Some of the articles I have written, for Reader’s Digest in Canada for example, featured recipes, as does the Penguin Book Club Guide to the book. Some of Emily’s recipes (tweaked by me) can also be found at my cooking blog, The Hungry Veggie Her Coconut Cake is a sweet, buttery, easy cake – I make it all the time now for visitors. My cousin Clodagh and I are going to bake some of Emily’s cakes for the launch (details below).

How wonderful – I’ll try those recipes out and look forward to samples at your launch! I relished the way the themes of gender and equality are peppered through the book, and with Ada as our perceptive observer, some of the expectations of women can be seen – tenderly – in the relationship between Emily and Susan, her sister-in-law, and how, through her poetry and solitude, Emily manages to escape some of these expectations.

“I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it…I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of ear, ‘I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.’”

NUALA: Women were expected to marry in nineteenth century Amherst, so Emily and her sister Vinnie were an unusual pair of spinsters. But they were well-to-do – their father was a lawyer and when he died their lawyer brother looked after them. So, in a sense, they had the luxury of being rebels. The Dickinson family were eccentric, they were clever and good leaders, important in the town, but they did things in their own way. Emily loved her sister-in-law Sue fervently – Sue was editor, friend and confidante to her.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed so tenderly over the course of the book. Yet there are also strong, and complex, male characters in Miss Emily: Emily’s brother Austin is an interesting character who, I can say, without revealing the plot, grows and changes through the novel; Patrick seems to be the antithesis to Daniel yet both are believable characters who provide yet another kind of insight into the Dickinsons, and, interestingly, reveal certain views of the Irish and class.

NUALA: I made Austin Dickinson quite anti-Irish in the novel – he may not have been as racist as I portrayed him. Ada and Emily are both such sweet, decent creatures, I needed the contrast of the fiery Austin, blowing in and out with his mad red hair, negative opinions and grumpy face. He and Emily were very close as children but once he became a responsible citizen and husband, Austin became more serious.

Patrick and Daniel are two sides of the Irish emigrant: the drunken layabout and the hard-working, go-ahead type.

And a question more than a comment, will we discover, in the future, what became of Ada and Daniel?

NUALA: I was asked this question a lot on my American book tour – I think it’s a good sign because it means people like the characters, and care enough about them, to hope for a good future for them. I have no plans to return to Ada and Daniel but I feel that life went well for them in the end: deep love, happiness – the whole shebang!

Sounds great! Nuala, I’d love to hear you read from Miss Emily. I know you have already given some readings (for example at the West Cork Literary Festival), where might we next find you with Miss Emily in hand?

NUALA: I will read a little from the book at my launch in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Friday 28th August, 6.30pm. (All welcome!)

Other confirmed appearances:

  • Thursday 3rd September: Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna, Co. Galway
  • Saturday 19th September: Spirit of Folk Festival, Co. Meath
  • Sunday 18th October: Kildare Reader’s Festival, Riverside Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare
  • Thursday 29th October: Blackbird Books, Navan, Co. Meath
  • Wednesday 25th November: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

I’ll be there on Friday 28th! And of course, we can keep up to date with your blog and website. Thanks again, Nuala, and I wish you continued and further success with the wonderful Miss Emily.

MissECover

MissE_UScover

THE DRAW FOR A SIGNED COPY OF MISS EMILY TOOK PLACE ON AUGUST 28th ….and the winner was Shirley McClure.